Authors: Loree Lough
Obnoxious’s ears perked up, and he answered with a breathy bark.
As Lamont flipped the steaks over the open fire, the dog sat watching, waiting patiently, grinning doggy-style. “Wonder if you’d be smilin’ if you knew you were second choice as my dinner companion,” Lamont said, cutting one steak into bite-sized cubes.
Obnoxious tilted his head, fuzzy brows rising as if he’d understood.
“Truth hurts, doesn’t it, boy?”
The dog responded with a quiet yip.
Half an hour later, as Lamont scraped the bony leftovers of their meal into the trash can, he remembered the cool tone in Nadine’s voice. Yeah, the truth hurt, all right, and hopefully, when he shaved in the morning, it wouldn’t stare boldly back at him from the mirror.
The weeks dragged by slower than a donkey-pulled plow. Since Nadine had canceled “steak night,” Lamont had been short-tempered with the ranch hands, and pretty much anyone else who crossed his path, too. His daughter, Lily, had a knack for teasing him out of a foul mood, but in good conscience he couldn’t interrupt the new bride’s zeal to get her house in order, especially not over something that was little more than a foolish infatuation.
Lamont gave some thought to changing Obnoxious’s name to Oblivious, because if the mutt had noticed his
master’s beastly behavior, it sure didn’t show. The dog ran circles around him now, leaping and yipping like a puppy as Lamont threw a blanket over the back of his favorite horse. “Long ride on a good horse will cure what ails a man,” he said, cinching the saddle.
He’d barely slid his boot into Barney’s stirrup when his cell phone rang. Lamont would’ve ignored it if it hadn’t been Nadine’s number on the caller ID. Instantly, his spirits lifted, as if a spring breeze had blown his foul mood deep into the dark and distant winter.
“Hey, there, pretty lady!”
A rascally chuckle crackled through the connection, telling Lamont what Adam needn’t have said: “Sorry to disappoint you, Romeo.”
He sounded so much like Ernest that Lamont instinctively shot back with a taunting remark, as he would’ve if Adam’s father
made the comment: “If you’ve got nothing better to do than play with the telephone, c’mon over here. I’ll be glad to—”
Laughing, Adam cut in. “Whoa, there. Easy, big fella.”
Lamont could almost see him, grinning like a hyena, hands in the air as if he were the victim of a holdup.
“I’m just calling to see if you’ll help us celebrate Mom’s birthday tomorrow.”
Birthday? But hadn’t she just celebrated her birthday recently?
“Julie invited some of the folks from church, but mostly, it’ll be neighbors. I’ve been scrimping and saving, but she’s got some harebrained idea that this will show Mom how much we appreciate the way she let us move in here. And it just wouldn’t be a party without Mom’s best beau.”
The term echoed in his head. He’d give just about
anything if that were true, but Nadine’s attitude when she canceled dinner echoed louder. Lamont took a deep breath, exhaled it slowly. “You’re not too old to take over my knee, y’know.” Just for good measure, he tacked on, “Whippersnapper.”
Adam snickered. “You’ve been saying that since I stood eye-to-eye with a rooster.”
Lamont thanked God for old memories that, for the moment, anyway, blotted out Nadine’s last phone call. The boy had seemed to prefer hanging around the ranch to staying home, and had enthusiastically performed mundane chores. The price to pay for Lamont came in the form of a few dollars—and pranks of every shape and variety. Adam had been about seven when he coated the door handle of Lamont’s pickup with honey. The boy was eight or nine when he put salt in the sugar bowl. Once, he’d outfitted one of Lily’s piglets in a doll’s raincoat and hung a sign around its neck: “LONDON HOG.” And after reading
as a homework assignment, he tried to steal one of Cammi’s fresh-baked cherry pies, cooling on the countertop. Startled when Lamont snuck up and seized his wrist, Adam’s fingers pierced the crust. Instead of cringing or crying, the then-eleven-year-old grinned and shrugged. “Guess you caught me red-handed this time, Mr. London!”
If he’d had a son, Lamont would have wanted him to be just like Adam—bighearted and hardworking with a “Never say quit” spirit. “When’s the party?”
“Tomorrow, Mom’s house, three o’clock.”
He’d earmarked tomorrow for mending fences and painting the front porch trim, but given a choice between chores and seeing Nadine?
“Be there with bells on.”
“And carrying a bouquet of daisies?”
Daisies? As if he were
her? “Adam, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were still a knock-kneed young’un instead of a grown man with a wife and daughter of his own.”
He heard the grin in Adam’s voice: “Remember what Mom says.”
Lamont shook his head as Adam quoted her: “God and nature have decreed that I must age, but I refuse to get old!”
He also remembered that, as a teenager, Adam had worked at the Flower Cart in town. “So,” Lamont said, “if I wanted to bring roses, instead, what color should I buy?”
“Lemme see if I recall…” Adam cleared his throat. “White stands for purity, red means love, yellow is for friendship, pink is—”
He didn’t hear anything after
“Should I bring anything?” Lamont asked. “Beans? Ketchup?” He grinned. “Salt for the sugar bowl?”
“For an old guy, you have a pretty good memory.” He quickly added, “Ladies Auxiliary is taking care of the food. Lily’s making iced tea and lemonade, and Cammi’s bringing the cake, so, thanks, but we’re all set.” Adam hesitated. “And just in case you run into her between now and tomorrow, Mom has no idea we’re throwing this bash. I can hardly wait to see her face when everybody bellows, ‘Happy Birthday’! She’s liable to blow a gasket.”
“Let’s hope not. Remember what happened when my old tractor blew one.”
The younger man chuckled. “Gave me nightmares for weeks. See you tomorrow,” he said, hanging up.
“Well, Obnoxious,” Lamont said, “looks like you ’n’ me are goin’ to a birthday party.”
Sitting on his haunches, the dog cocked his head, as if to say “
“Yeah, you can come,” Lamont said, hoisting himself onto his horse Barney’s back, “but only if you promise to coax Nadine into a corner so I can give her a birthday kiss.”
Obnoxious stared for a moment, then woofed his consent and raced alongside the horse. Lamont led it in a gallop toward the back pastures. “You arrange that for me,” he added, “and I’ll grill up the thickest filet mignon in the freezer, just for you.”
The dog stopped running so fast that dirt and grit spewed out behind him. Standing stock-still, he blinked up at Lamont, doggy grin as big as ever, then ran full speed toward the house.
Lamont leaned forward and patted the horse’s mane. “Barney, m’boy, sometimes I think that mutt understands every word I’m saying.”
By Lamont’s count, there were at least sixty people in Nadine’s backyard, mostly women, but none compared to the birthday girl. Not even his gorgeous daughters—and that was saying something.
He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her since she stepped off the back porch and slapped both dainty hands to her cheeks. “I can’t believe it!” she chanted half a dozen times. “How’d you guys pull this off without me knowing about it?” The surprise turned her cheeks bright pink, making her look more like a college cheerleader than a grandmother.
She’d pulled her shoulder-length blond hair into a ponytail and secured it with a ribbon that matched the blue of her eyes. White sneakered feet seemed too tiny to hold a full-grown woman upright and, in his opinion,
her jeans-clad legs were way too curvy to belong to
woman over twenty-one. Nadine topped off her outfit with a bright white T-shirt that said, “Beware: Picture-packin’ Granny.”
She was like a female Pied Piper, with no fewer than half a dozen tots hugging her knees, tugging at her pockets. As she balanced a chubby baby on one curvy hip, she held a toddler by the hand. Obnoxious pranced around, waiting for a pat on the head, and Julie’s cat wove figure eights between Nadine’s ankles. Yet amid all the squealing and giggling, barking and meowing, she smiled serenely, which only made her more beautiful to Lamont.
Woman like that should’ve had half a dozen kids, Lamont thought. Funny, but until that moment, he’d never wondered why she and Ernest quit after just one. Adam had been a handful, to be sure, but if Nadine could control this mob at the age of fifty-one, surely she could have handled two or three young’uns while she was in her twenties.
She looked up just then, and as their gazes locked, Nadine smiled and waved with the only appendage left: her pinky. Immediately, his heart started knocking against his ribs. What was it about her that could set his pulse to pounding and his palms to sweating? Not even his wife had been able to do that, and he’d loved Rose with all his heart.
Nadine’s granddaughter darted up to Lamont and grabbed his hand. “Will you push me on the swing, Mr. London?” Without waiting for an answer, the four-year-old led him toward Nadine’s wraparound back porch. “Grandmom’s swing is too big. I can’t get it going all by myself.”
As if in a daze, Lamont followed the tiny blonde, then lifted her onto the wide, slatted seat.
“Do you like my new dress?” she asked, smoothing her frilly pink skirt.
“You’re purty as a baby duck,” he drawled, winking.
Amy gave him a sidelong glance. “Are baby ducks pretty?”
babies are beautiful.”
As she considered his response, the breeze lifted blond bangs from her forehead, exposing a smattering of tiny freckles. Strange, but she looked more like Nadine than Adam or Julie.
“Do you think Grandmom is pretty?”
“Just between you and me,” he said, looking to see if the coast was clear, “I think she’s one of the most beautiful woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on.”
“Flattery will get you anywhere.”
He’d recognize that voice in a crowd at New York’s Penn Station. Straightening, he turned, hoping she’d blame the heat in his cheeks on the warm afternoon sunshine. “Nadine, how long have you been standing there?”
Hooking thumbs into her belt loops, she bobbled her head. “Exactly long enough.” Then, to Amy, “I’m gonna cut the cake soon, sweetie. Better wash your hands!”
In the blink of an eye, the child was halfway across the yard. “Don’t worry, Grandmom,” she hollered over her shoulder, “I won’t slam the door on the way inside.”
“Good girl!” Nadine called back. She cast a glance at Lamont. “She’s a pistol, that granddaughter of mine.”
“It’s in the DNA, I reckon,” he said, chuckling as the back door banged shut. “Time to cut the cake, you say?”
Nodding, she began walking toward the paper-covered folding table that held an assortment of desserts. “How long did you know about this shindig?”
“Since yesterday afternoon, when Adam called to invite me.”
“That’s what everyone has been saying. He pulled this thing together awfully fast.”
“I got the impression it was Julie who did most of the organizing. And it’s high time you learned to let people do nice things for
once in a while.”
He’d learned decades ago that Nadine didn’t accept compliments well, that she preferred giving to taking.
“This is Adam’s home. Julie and Amy’s, too. I’m thrilled to have them here, even if it is only temporary.”
Her brow furrowed as she hung her head and sighed heavily. “I hope so. They have some serious money troubles, but…” She bit her lower lip. “Grace Mevers says I should open the presents, but I’d rather not.”
Lamont chose not to press her for more details. Her kids’ financial situation was none of his business, after all. “Because you want to open them after the cake and ice cream?”
“I don’t want to open them
because what about those folks who couldn’t afford to bring a gift? This was so last-minute. And everybody’s lives are so busy. Surely some people didn’t have time to bring a gift.” She exhaled a sigh. “I’d hate for anyone to feel uncomfortable.”
Lamont chuckled and, draping an arm over her shoulders, fell into step beside her. “Nadine Greene,” he said, kissing her temple, “you know what your biggest problem is?”
“I don’t like birthday parties?”
She looked up at him, a half grin on her face as one brow rose with teasing suspicion. “What?”
“Your heart is bigger than your head, that’s what. And I love that about you.”
He felt her stiffen against him when he said that, and for a reason he couldn’t explain, it cut him to the quick. “Just so you’ll know, I intend to be the last guest to leave.”
He loved the way she moved her delicate hands and batted those thick eyelashes. Fact was, he loved a lot of things about her—things he hadn’t really noticed until lately. “Because,” he said, “I have something for you. It’s in the truck.”
A little gasp passed her lips as her eyes widened. “Lamont, you didn’t have to—”
“I know. I
She glanced at her watch, and he could almost read her mind: In an hour, maybe two, the party would be over and she’d be faced with Lamont and his gift. Alone.
Would that really be so terrible?
Her friend, Grace, stood grinning alongside the rest of the partygoers, ready to strike a big kitchen match. “Don’t light
those candles,” Nadine warned. “They’ll see the smoke all the way in town and send the fire department!”
Time dragged for the rest of the afternoon, and
he wondered how she’d behave when her guests had all gone home. Would she treat him with welcoming warmth, as she had the night when they walked hand in hand around her yard, or with aloofness, as she had on the phone the night after?
Lamont shook his head and focused on the friends and neighbors who’d gathered around her. They pressed close, singing a loud, off-key rendition of the birthday song.
Everyone but Lamont.
There she stood, glowing brighter than the candles on her cake, blue eyes wide and smile sparkling, looking more gorgeous than any woman had a right to. And here
stood, admitting, finally, that he wanted to be more than her friend and neighbor.